Women's hockey still has growing pains

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Finland's Noora Raty was also goaltender for the University of Minnesota's national champions.

Canada made no apology after defeating Switzerland 13-0 earlier this week at the IIHF Women's World Hockey Championship, but you can bet there were some who were more than a little uncomfortable with the final result.

Three years ago, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge put women's hockey on notice after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, saying, "we cannot continue without improvement."

There has been significant improvement since Rogge's comments, but such lopsided victories remind everyone of the massive chasm that remains between powerhouses Canada and the U.S. and the rest of the world.

"Of course, the other nations feel pressure to close the gap. Of course we want to beat them," Swiss head coach Daniel Meier said. "We are not at the same level. They have 60,000 players; we have 1,000, but our goal is still to bring our players up and beat them one day."

Switzerland surprised everyone last year by winning the bronze medal, which allowed them to compete in a group with Canada, the U.S. and Finland this year. While it makes for a more difficult pool, Meier says it also offers a teaching opportunity.

"When you're in the other pool you are so worried about losing. It's so much stress every game," Meier said. "In this group, you can let some of your players with less experience play a bit more and learn. You might lose in a bad way to the Canadians or the U.S., but at least everyone got a chance to play and learn."

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Canada's Jayna Hefford said that even as other countries get better, her team continues to improve.

It should be noted the Swiss didn't even start their best goaltender. The coaching staff said it was in the program's best interest to allow their younger goaltenders to face the Canadians.

"The results sometimes clouds the picture," head scout of the Canadian women's program and former head coach from the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, Melody Davidson, said. "I think since Vancouver we've made some huge strides in a lot of areas for a lot of countries. We need to keep building that depth because eventually that depth is what's going to beat Canada and the U.S.

"Building the depth of the countries ranked below Canada and the U.S. is crucial. When you build depth, you build competition."

Aside from the lopsided Canadian win, the tournament has definitely shown the increased level of competition among the remaining nations.

Getting better

Russia's 3-0 record through group play is a perfect example of what additional support, both on and off the ice, can do for a team. The Russians will play Switzerland in one of the quarterfinals.

As host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Russian Hockey Federation feels a certain amount of pressure to ensure its women's team will be competitive. With that in mind came the hiring of former NHL sniper Alexei Yashin as general manager of the women's team.

"My position is basically to create a better environment so we prepare and can be better," Yashin said.

To others, it's a sign of greater commitment to the women's game. With a little more money and resources at their disposal, most countries would likely be much more competitive.

"We need those countries that have women's teams at the Olympics or in the top 12 to 14 to put money into growing their programs," Davidson said. "It wasn't easy for us, and it wasn't easy for the U.S., so a lot of these countries are where we were at about 10 years ago.

"It doesn't matter what country you live in, the more money you get, the easier it is to build and grow your program."

Meier added that without significant results on the international stage, it makes it difficult for teams to convince their respective federations that their program deserves greater funding.

In an effort to improve their own game, many international players began seeking opportunities overseas, which has resulted in numerous players now in the NCAA, in Canadian universities and the Canadian Women's Hockey League.

Heading overseas

Finland's Noora Raty, who plays for the University of Minnesota, played a key role in the Gophers' perfect 41-0 season. The goaltender had 38 victories with a .956 save percentage and a 0.96 goals-against average.

"I think it's great to have some international players join us," Amanda Kessel, a teammate of Raty's in Minnesota and a member of Team USA, said. "[Noora] is an amazing player, and she'll really help her team."

Kessel admits Rogge's comments definitely make her nervous as she grew up dreaming about playing at the Olympics and can't imagine taking that opportunity away from today's young girls.

"I can't even imagine growing up and not being able to dream about the Olympics," Kessel said. "I think we need to do whatever we can to help other countries and develop our game."

Katey Stone, coach of the U.S, said she believes patience is key and that the IOC needs to give the game room to grow.

"We need to put the resources in that are needed," Stone said. "The product that you see on the ice now is better every year on every team. Every team has a great goaltender now, and that's an equalizer. It's just a matter of growing your pool of talent within your own country and then being able to present that to the world."

The other issue at hand is that neither Canada nor the U.S. is content to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

"We're continuing to get better, so you're not seeing the gap close," Canada's Jayna Hefford said. "Those countries are getting better. Their young players are getting more skilled; they're quicker, but we're not sitting around waiting for them to catch us."

One can only hope the rest of the world manages to at least make it close.

Lisa Wallace covers hockey for The Canadian Press.

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